THE LIST (NORTH DAKOTA STYLE)


I puffed my way up the last of the steep climb to the Petrified Forest Plateau, the forest itself several miles and several millennia behind me.  It must have been quite a sight, given the size of the stony logs and stumps, still so realistic, they needed to be touched to prove their composition was inorganic. 

The plateau was a sea of short-grass prairie, a small remnant of the original.  I walked south on the Maah Daah Hay trail, 13 miles from Medora, North Dakota and 86 miles from its northern terminus along the Little Missouri River.  This was Roughrider Country, and I was in wilderness that bore the name of the 26th president. 

The hiking itself was easy for one who is used to mountains.  The pool-table flat prairie afforded views into the eroded hills with juniper trees on their north facing slopes and sparse grass on the warmer, drier southern facing ones.  Trail markers were visible a mile away, allowing me to easily detour when I encountered bison.BISON IN THEODORE ROOSEVELT NP 

I had long wanted to see this area, which was on “The List,” affording it special status in my life.  “The List” currently contains 29 items, places to see or things to do in my life.  It is dynamic.  Each year, an item or two gets put on it.  Each year, if all goes well, a few items are checked off.  This year was particularly good — I saw Isle Royale and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks, and a wolf in the wild, the last having been at the top of “The List” for many years.  “The List” is the most deeply personal thought I publicize.  Because it is so personal, I don’t believe in the “1000 places to see before you die” concept.  That is somebody else’s list.  Mine is mine.  If you have one, which I hope you do, yours is yours. 

“The List” began as a figure of speech many years ago.  In my forties, I wrote it down, becoming more aware of life’s lack of guarantees.  A neurologist, I saw too many people disabled or dead before they did or saw what they wanted to.  When I reached my fifties, the realization hit me that much of “The List” contained wilderness areas that required good health and good physical condition.  I almost put off the trip to Dakota for another year, but I knew if I went now I wouldn’t be kicking myself next year if something came up.  Indeed, a bicycle accident in July left me with a broken scapula and three broken ribs, all of which healed but were a stark reminder of what can happen. 

Occasionally, I delete an item, but only if I am really no longer interested.  Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and Etosha Park remain, but it’s a long trip, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled twice to South Africa.  I don’t know if I’ll ever finish the 1500 miles of the Appalachian Trail I haven’t hiked.  Nevertheless, finishing the AT is on the list.  Some items are easier — I want to show my wife Hawaii, and I want to spend a night camped out in the Rincons.  Right now, the Arrigetch Peaks in Gates of the Arctic are at the top.  I’m going next summer, while I still can. 

“The List” is not completely rational.  North Cascades is on it; the Everglades are not, although I do want to see them.  “The List” is a written reminder not to squander good years.  We have to make a living, but we ought not forget things outside of work that are important to us.  I’m not a city person, but seeing London is one of the items. 

I day hiked in North Dakota.  I had never done a trip like that before and found it rewarding.  I covered serious mileage each day because I carried less.  Water is an issue there, and bison are dangerous, both good reasons not to camp in the backcountry.  It was also nice to sleep in a bed when the temperature was in the low 20s.  In addition to bison, I saw pronghorn, wild horses, deer as well as hearing and seeing bugling elk, a real treat.  But time in wilderness usually gives me more than visual memories.  I generally come out of the area looking at the world differently.  I left Billings County with a surprising sense of optimism, given the current state of the world.  Theodore Roosevelt came to the area in 1882 as a young man.  An avid hunter, he realized the uniqueness of that particular era and envisioned a time when the bison were gone and the prairie no more.  He said, “What makes our country great is not what we have but how we use it.”  Three days after another September 11, ’01 – 1901 – he became president, the first interested in conservation.  It’s difficult to travel in Roughrider Country without encountering:  “I never would have become president had it not been for my experiences in North Dakota.”  I think he would be pleased to know the bison are still around, and the area he loved became first a memorial to him and then a national park.  He worked to save what he could, and it changed America.  Those of us who do our part can change America as well. 

And while you change America, don’t forget your list.

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